A tale of two passports

The view from Diriamba

The view from Diriamba

I like my U.S. passport. It allows me to go to Nicaragua and back at will, as long as I can afford the travel. I do not have to visit a Nicaraguan embassy here in order to do this; it all happens at immigration at the airport in Managua, wrapped up in the space of a minute, after a cursory question about the purpose of my visit. The tourist visa stamped into my passport can be renewed pretty much indefinitely simply by crossing briefly into Costa Rica every 90 days.

You only realize how robust this freedom really is when you contrast it with the reverse situation. A Nicaraguan who wants a visa to travel to the United States has to go to the American embassy with documents demonstrating a healthy bank account, hopefully ownership of land, along with other factors that suggest he or she has extremely good reasons to return.

On top of that, the applicant has to pay a fee that last I heard was $150, money that is not given back if the application is rejected. Should the application be rejected and they want to apply a second time, they will have to pay the application fee again.

Many people who have gone through the process have told me that they pick their line at the embassy based on which agent seems to be in a foul or a generous mood. Because of a perception that success could hinge on whether the agent slept in bed or on the couch the previous night, the request for a visa to the U.S. in Nicaragua is commonly referred to as la loteria.

On the one hand, the application fee seems meant to scare off would-be immigrants posing as tourists. It might be seen on the other hand as a leeching of the working populace of an impoverished country by the power that has historically subjugated them; the bureaucratic inertia of exploitation.

Furthermore, the understanding that chances are slim, especially for those without the aforementioned proofs, funnels poor Nicaraguans looking for opportunity in the U.S. to the coyotes who promise to help them cross the border at fleecing rates, attempts that often end in failure or even death. A good share of responsibility for these fatalities needs to be placed with policy-makers.

Because of the limitations on travel imposed by our government’s immigration policies and hemispheric economic conditions consequent to America’s hegemony, Nicaragua can sometimes seem like an island. While there is no express prohibition to leaving as there has been in Cuba, for example, it is clear that many Nicaraguans are effectively stranded there.

Even if they take their stranding in good cheer, and love their country fiercely, there is a subtly plaintive quality to the national character that I believe is born from a sense of limitations, often expressed in a fatalistic sense of humor. This is acute to a North American visitor, who tends to grapple with the opposite – a confusing surplus of possibilities.

While a great number of Americans are trapped by generational poverty that prevents them from traveling abroad, the U.S. passport enshrines a very real, potentially transcendent, freedom. Even if we take a critical stance toward our government, we can, generally, come and go. Noam Chomsky has a passport. I’m sure Eldridge Cleaver had one too. Timothy Leary’s may have never even been rescinded. Restrictions on a certain percentage of those who have been convicted of felonies circumscribes, but for the greater part of the populace this holds true.

I consider my passport a prized possession I am very fortunate to have, a window into other cultures. I also appreciate the way in which it reflects my own culture, even when what it shows is hard to look at.


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